Algebra Foundations

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The state of California is leaning toward dropping Algebra I from 8th grade, preferring to rely on a “Common Core” set of guidelines that leaves out Algebra. Having a math curriculum core that leaves out the foundation of all high school mathematics is a major retreat from the curriculum standard throughout the United States, an acknowledgment of a broken pedagogy. In addition, in a New York Times editorial, Andrew Hacker rails against Algebra I as unnecessary, as a waste that causes students to drop out. This attitude shift is one of the largest in the education economy in years. Arguing for dropping Algebra ignores the structural reality of higher education. During each phase of a student’s academic career, from high school through professional school, Algebra proves essential. Algebra is also increasingly necessary in all careers.

Students who do not take Algebra I in middle school follow a math progression in high school that has them in Algebra II as a junior and Pre-Calculus as a senior. This is in contrast to having Algebra I in middle school. In that scenario, students reach Algebra II as a sophomore, Pre-Calculus as a junior, and, vitally, Calculus as a senior. That might not seem too dangerous at first glance, but the SAT, which is typically taken junior or senior year, requires mastery of Algebra II. Without Algebra II already mastered by junior year, students on the Algebra-free middle school track are forced to take the SAT as seniors, giving minimal time for a retake.

The flexibility of a retake is important so that a student can recover from having a bad test day or to realize they need additional test prep assistance. Overall, not having retake flexibility drastically reduces the margin of error on the test, as there is no retake to fall back on, greatly increasing pressure on the student. This also eliminates the possibility of Superscoring. With poor SAT scores, students will be limited in their college options. In the long-term, high-powered consulting firms and Google use SAT scores in the hiring process, so that poor score could box a student out of their dream job years in advance.

Algebra helps students develop critical thinking skills and is the foundation for all subsequent math.

Moreover, once students matriculate to college, they will be placed into remedial math, which is college Algebra at a minimum. That is a big deal, too. Students who did not take Algebra I in middle school will be a year behind, forced into Algebra anyway, regardless of their own ability to understand math. Many majors do not have much room for flexibility and require at least Algebra to begin. Undergraduate Business programs require Algebra for sales, data analysis, and gauging market efficacy. Excel spreadsheets, a key ally of the Business student, are unworkable without solid Algebra. Architecture and Product Design require Geometry. Needing extra math could easily force a student to take longer than four years to graduate.

Additionally, many top schools start remedial math with a very fast-paced Calculus, much harder than what is taught in high schools. If a student never had the option to take Calculus, which would be every student in California under the proposed guideline, they are stuck in curved classes with peers who have seen all the material before. Pushing Algebra I off a year has serious, negative consequences for the college-bound student.

When thinking about professional school, Algebra once again proves critical. New guidelines for the GRE, the graduate school exam, mandate that all students, regardless of graduate school program, take a math portion that includes Calculus. A student who never learned Algebra will suffer, regardless of their humanities-based talents. With a GRE score hurting an application, the odds of getting into that Philosophy program plummet. Other types of professional schools have similar requirements. Medical and nursing schools require Calculus for admission. Veterinary schools require the same. Business school requires a mastery of statistics that takes, you guessed it, mastery of Algebra.

Finally, if Algebra is cut, and other advanced math with it, students will be lacking in critical math skills. Algebra I is vital to developing analytical thinking skills. In an increasingly technological world effective employees must have a grasp of certain critical underlying mathematical concepts and problem-solving techniques. If anything, students need more math, not less. Increasingly, many careers that used to be devoid of math are now more and more math-based. Marketing and advertising, for example, increasingly use statistical analyses to determine consumer preferences and buying patterns. Pharmacists must know how to do complicated unit conversions. The most common career in America, salesperson, is math-based. In all of these careers, a foundation of Algebra is vital.

In the end, when an authority like the New York Times supports abandoning Algebra I they are doing parents and students a major disservice. Algebra is vital to securing high-paying work of almost any kind, science-related or not, and not having Algebra I in middle school can put students well behind their peers in high school and beyond.

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